Gag Me With Clean Coal

Take a revitalizing breath of those clean coal emissions from the average coal plant, filled with carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic and lead – all deadly toxic to humans in high amounts.  Breathe deeply the pestilence that is clean coal.

If coal’s impact on climate change weren’t so serious, the public relations campaign that asks us to choke down “clean coal” would be farcical. “Clean coal” is a dirty joke that won’t wash.  In his GQ article, entitled Black Tide, Sean Flynn says,  “The Term clean coal entered the lexicon in its current faux-eco-activist incarnation—with the implication that coal can be a source of nonpolluting fuel, that it can be scrubbed of its toxins and its carbon dioxide rendered harmless—with stunning speed, largely in the past two years through the expensive efforts of two groups:  the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a lobbying group for coal-burning industries, and the Hawthorn Group, a marketing firm hired by ACCCE.”

In an ad for ACCCE President Barack Obama is featured saying, “Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent…This is America.  We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years.  You can’t tell me that we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here…and make it work,” just as the Hawthorn Group had planned.

Contemptible as it is, the Hawthorn Group was understandably proud that Barack Obama and other candidates for President adopted their very language saying, “Soon our message was repeated back to us from the podium by the candidates themselves.”  In their newsletter they bragged, that before they began their clean coal campaign for ACCCE, a slim majority of public opinion leaders surveyed, opposed burning coal to generate electricity.  But when their PR campaign was complete, they had 72% support.

Hawthorn succeeded in practically turning 2008 Presidential candidate events into clean coal rallies and said in their newsletter, “Building on our existing 200,000-strong grassroots citizen army, we leveraged the presidential candidates’ own supporters, finding advocates for clean coal among the crowd to carry our message…We did this by sending ‘clean coal’ branded teams to hundreds of presidential candidate events, carrying a positive message (we can be part of the solution to climate change) which was reinforced by giving away free t-shirts and hats emblazoned with our branding: Clean Coal. Attendees at the candidate events wore these items into the events.”  Hawthorn combined grassroots organizing and integrated online media to create more of a buzz.

Coal is clean — in the same way that cigarettes are healthy.  Only with clean coal, cancer is the least of your worries.Clean coal comes as highly recommended as an investment in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.  Only with clean coal, you’ll lose more than your shirt.  Staking our energy future on clean coal is wise — in the same way that basing the entire U.S. economy on sub-prime housing loans was.  Just stand back and watch it blow-up in your face like the exploding housing bubble did.  Only this time humanity itself is at stake. Outside of the Madison Avenue-type, faux-reality created by the Hawthorn Group for ACCCE, coal is a dirty, polluting, non-renewable energy source, contributing up to 40% of all greenhouse gases endangering more than just polar bears.  Coal is a foul fossil fuel that must go the way of the dinosaurs.  An average coal plant in the U.S. produces 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, polluting our air, water and driving our climate to the breaking point.  Sean Flynn calls the premise of the Hawthorn campaign, that coal is clean, “complete horseshit.” So you see, there is no such thing as clean coal.  Scrubbed, sequestered or otherwise, it’s still a dirty, deadly fiction.

If the byproducts of burning coal to produce electricity are not convincing, consider the fact that coal mining companies engage in the heinous, destructive practice known as mountain-top removal to mine coal.  They literally blow-up our ancient Appalachian mountains killing flora and fauna, displacing families that have lived there for generations, destroying water systems and life in nearby communities.  We stand by calling their dirty deeds clean, encouraging this tragedy with our unfettered use of coal-powered electricity.The coal ash spill that happened in Kingston Tennessee dwarfed the most dramatic environmental disasters in history.  “Just days before Christmas last year, an environmental disaster one hundred times the size of the Exxon Valdez (yes, you read that right) unfolded on a riverbank in eastern Tennessee. A wave of poisonous sludge buried a town…along with the myth of clean coal,” according to Sean Flynn.A billion gallons of gray, wet, gloppy coal ash, almost 40 feet deep cut loose as an oversized, man-made dam broke, smashed houses, displaced fish in the river, crumbled boat houses, ripped out trees and eventually covered more than 300 acres. Toxic metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, thallium, selenium, covered the area.  By a fortunate fluke of mid-winter timing, nobody was injured or killed, but some have gotten sick.

There you have it:  another example of clean coal.  Then there’s the tiny little fact that approximately 1500 similar, mostly unregulated coal ash plants dot the Southeastern U.S.  The federal government does not consider coal ash to be hazardous waste and state laws vary.

Destroy life, property, mountains, streams, rivers, families, communities and the planet to obtain a filthy fossil fuel.  Burn it for electricity, releasing myriad poisons.  Contain the resulting sludge and toxic ash in billion gallon ponds, until they break.  Call it clean.  Get the President to call it clean.  Repeat.  Add alliteration and a multi-million dollar PR campaign.  Voila, you have clean coal.It’s time to shout it from the Appalachian mountain tops, before they disappear:  The miasma that is coal cannot be cleaned.  We must trade the fossil fuel economy for one that is based on clean, renewable, non-nuclear energy, like wind, solar and geothermal — now.  We cannot continue business as usual even for a few more decades.

KARYN STRICKLER is a political scientist, grassroots organizer and writer.  She is a senior fellow with the Center for New Politics and Policy.  Karyn is the producer and host of Climate Challenge on MMCTV.  You can contact her at .